All too often, we understand ‘mission’ as being limited to a specific time or place says Matthew Skirton, CEO of Operation Mobilisation. But mission is not a unique calling for the few, it’s a command given to all Christians, all the time
As a missional movement, we have recently decided to rename our short-term mission trips. Every year hundreds of Jesus followers join our teams across the world in reaching out with the love of Jesus. Rather than referring to these trips as ‘short-term missions’ (STMs), we now talk about ‘short-term outreaches’ (STOs) whenever possible. This may sound like an inconsequential change but the reality is that this simple name change is a small step in beginning to address the fact that many of us may be guilty of misunderstanding what mission really is.
Time and place
Perhaps too often, our idea of mission can be limited to a specific time or person. You ‘do’ mission for a short stint and then get on with the rest of your life, or someone is ‘called to the mission-field’. While it is true that some have a specific calling to full-time ministry or overseas mission, the danger many of us can fall into is viewing mission as an exclusive and elevated activity for a very committed few.
many of us may be guilty of misunderstanding what mission really is
But mission isn’t a unique calling for the few, but rather a command given to every Christian. Scripture clearly teaches that all disciples are called to make disciples. Speaking to his followers in Acts 1:8 Jesus tells them, “…you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” We are witnesses to the saving grace of God, we are all commissioned to a life of mission. Mission should never be seen as short term for a follower of Jesus.
So, if mission is about witnessing with our whole lives, why bother with short-term outreaches?
It is true that STOs can be run badly. They can become Christian holidays to get great photos. Indeed, a strong argument can be made that outreach by locals may be more effective, as they will not have to face the obstacles, such as language and cultural barriers, which overseas volunteers do.
However, when overseas outreaches are coordinated well, they can, and do, impact local communities — and those that go on them — in a positive way. So here are my seven top tips for an effective short-term outreach:
- Always be facilitated by, and work in partnership with, the local church.
- Humility is key. Teams are going to serve, not be served, and to learn, not to teach.
- Host churches and teams should be prepared and understand who is coming. This includes making it clear that the visitors don’t come with any ‘elevated’ authority but are there to join the work the local church is already doing.
- Short-term outreach must support long-term strategy and vision.
- Local believers should be welcomed completely as team members. Locals are not just translators or interpreters, but part of one team using their gifts in different ways.
- Preparation is key. Educate yourself on the cultural sensitivities and language.
- Embed yourselves with the local believers. Remember we are brothers and sisters in Christ. We need to avoid judgementalism and embrace our cultural differences.
When we are aware of these things, the potential impact of short-term outreach is huge. The first time I came to understand this was when I experienced it myself.
I registered to join an evangelistic outreach in Estonia back in my student days. We arrived in Parnu, in the south of the country. Small groups of believers had started to meet together in villages and we were sent to encourage them in their faith and help them reach out to others.
Mission isn’t a unique calling for the few, but a command given to every Christian
After the initial culture shock, I began to find my feet. A few weeks in, I was asked to deliver the gospel message. After much protestation on my part and insistence on the part of my local team leader, I found myself, legs shaking and mouth dry, standing up the front. I managed to say a few words about John 3:16 and how God loves us all before hastily inviting the team back to the front. But I had spoken in public about my faith. There was an increasing urgency in my heart. Many of these people had never heard the good news of the gospel and would perhaps never have the opportunity to again. God was not only working through our team, but he was also working in my heart.
God used a STO trip to take me and many others like me out of our comfort zones, shake us up and open our eyes to a missional life.
STOs continue to be an important part of what we do at Operation Mobilisation. For the hosts, they can bring renewed energy to a local team and provide valuable resource in their mission. And for those that go, often we return with a renewed joy in what it means to know Jesus as our Lord and saviour, and a new urgency and confidence in reaching out with that message to others.